Renovation gives a new lease on life to an old eyesore


A Main Street apartment house so notorious for crowds of loiterers that Westminster police called it simply by number - and once deemed so unsafe city officials sought to tear it down - has been rescued to be reborn as luxury apartments.

Local businessman Paul Dukehart and his wife, CristinaDukehart, are working with a crew that has gutted the 19th-century brick building at 110 E. Main St., saving historic materials and artifacts - and pitching everything else. They hope to be finished by October.

They tore down an old stable at the rear, where carpeting and toys amid the bottles and drug paraphernalia indicated a child had lived there after the building was boarded up last year.

Reaction from city officials, police and the neighbors echoed that of lawyer Kirk Seaman, who said he is "totally elated" by the transformation, adding that it prompted him to buy the building he had been renting at 102-104 E. Main St.

The drugs and alcohol, littering and loitering were so bad that Seaman had a pay telephone in front of his offices taken out and gave up on his outdoor flower pots.

"It was a terrible scenario," he said.

The Dukeharts' project, however, has changed the nature of the neighborhood.

Early last year, the building became a target of Westminster Common Council's "uninhabitable buildings" law, passed in 1995, and the former owner was fined $500 in District Court on one citation of failing to secure the vacant building.

Westminster's code-enforcement officer acted after squatters moved in, said Thomas B. Beyard, director of planning and public works. He said electrical, sanitary and structural concerns made the site unfit for habitation.

One of the Dukeharts' current crew knew those problems well.

"I lived here about six years ago, and it was a dump," said Jack Wimsett of Westminster, who stayed about a year in 1993-1994.

"You would come home from work and the place would be dark, no heat, no electric half the time," he said, standing on a new staircase. "Half the time going up the old steps, I wondered if I was going to fall through. And the porch: One time I leaned on the railing and it fell off."

Destruction averted

The city first sought to have the property repaired, Beyard said. Then the Common Council decided to seek a court order to tear down the building.

That action was delayed by federal bankruptcy proceedings, he said. Then the bank foreclosed, and the property was sold at auction in August, with the Dukeharts as the successful bidders.

"It's really a welcome change," said Capt. Randy Barnes of the Westminster Police Department.

"I know it because of citizens' complaints about it," he said. "In the last six months, people had moved in, helped themselves to the property. It was a known area for people to hang out, undesirable people, acting inappropriately."

It was the only building on East Main Street that caused such a problem - and the only one of several problem spots in town called simply by number. "'Keep an eye on 110 tonight' - that's what we would say," Barnes said. "It became a household name."

Cristina Dukehart beamed as she stood on the new porches, one glassed in above and one with pillars below. Dressed in overalls, she showed the work they've done and outlined their plans with her husband, who owns two carwashes in town.

'Amazing building'

Little is known of the history of the building. Land records indicate the first structure was erected in the late 1860s.

The stone basement shows that the original structure was 14 feet wide. The house was expanded sideways, upward and to the rear. Paul Dukehart said he figures there were six building stages in the first 100 years of the building's history.

"This is an amazing building," he said. Once inside, "the size of it just blows people away."

Now its rooms are outlined by more than 1,000 two-by-fours, with some exposed brick, fireplaces and wood flooring showing. Dukehart said they saved the banisters and cleaned about 20,000 bricks.

The building cost about $60,000, he said, and the restoration cost about $130,000. There will be five apartments, expected to be finished by October, with common glassed-in porches at front and back, and a brick courtyard and fountain outside.

Joy in renovation

This is the couple's second such venture. Their first project at 226 Pennsylvania Ave., at the other end of downtown, is fully rented, and they said they found the experience of renovating the property pleasant.

The Dukeharts have prospective tenants for 110 E. Main St. The most sought-after apartment is Cristina Dukehart's favorite: a top one-bedroom, with dormer windows and French doors opening onto a private porch. The other four will be two-bedroom apartments, and all of the units will have fireplaces and 8-by-9-foot bathrooms with whirlpool tubs.

"I think it's a really good development project for this end of town," said R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp., whose offices are across the street at 105 E. Main St. "High-end luxury apartments is a niche that really hasn't been created."

Old discoveries

The Dukeharts plan a small museum in the lobby, displaying things they found in the rebuilding, such as business cards of Dr. Joseph Hering,old bottles, a coin from the temperance movement, and girlie magazines from the 1920s.

"There have been a lot of bad stories about this place," Cristina Duke said. "We're hoping we can create a prettier picture."

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